Mort Walker: Fifty Years of Beetle Bailey

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Mort Walker

EDIT: January 29, 2018

It is with great sadness that we report on the passing of comic strip legend Mort Walker, who passed away on January 27, 2018 at the age of 94.

To remember his achievements, we are republishing this interview with Mort, as we talked about his most famous character, Beetle Bailey, on the 50th anniversary of the strip.

* * *

In 1938, while comic books were just entering the Golden Age, Mort Walker staked his claim on the newspaper comic strip pages. He was 14 years old. The most notable of Mort's creations is undoubtedly Beetle Bailey, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year.

I was privileged to speak with Mort about Beetle's comic and real-life misadventures, as well as a few other interesting tidbits you may not know about.

For those of you who have never had the opportunity to talk with Mort, you're missing a lot of stories, and a lot of laughs. Mort has a rich, deep voice that rivals that of Thurl Ravenscroft (Tony the Tiger, for those who might not know). This was one of those interviews I was sorry to see end.

First of all, congratulations on your Distinguished Civilian Service medal from the army for fifty years of Beetle Bailey. I understand the military wasn't always enamored of Beetle, though, were they?

Thank you. No, as a matter of fact, one time they put out a book using my comic strips on how not to do things. I was kicked out of The Stars And Stripes twice, and finally got back in.

A couple of anecdotes: Somebody said they wanted some drawings to raise money for war bonds, and I offered to do some and they said "They don't want you."

Then there was another time I had lunch with Charlie Wilson who was the Secretary of the Army, and we came out of the office and we were shaking hands and there was an Associated Press photographer out there. He said, "Could I take your picture." Charlie said, "Ah, okay, okay." So we shook hands, and he took the picture. I waited for a month or so to see the picture. Finally I called up and I said "Where's that picture?" and they said "Oh, the Associated photographer didn't have any film in his camera." Oooh, yeah.

Sure he didn't!

(Laughing) Sure he didn't! So he squelched that one. It was interesting, though.

The Secretary of the Army was pinning my medal on me and I told him, "You know, one month ago I got the medal for the Chevalier from the French government, and as the ambassador pinned the medal on me, he kissed me on both cheeks." And the Secretary of the Army says, "This is the Army. We don't ask, and we don't tell."

Now that brings me to another question I had. Beetle's never shied away from controversy, being pulled from military newspapers for engendering disrespect for authority, and pulled from the southern newspapers when you introduced Lt. Jack Flap, the first African American in the strip. Is Beetle ever going to explore the current controversies of the "don't ask / don't tell" policies?

Well, we did it a little bit, by bringing in my character called Julius. When I first introduced him, people started writing in and asking me "What are you doing, having a homosexual in your strip?" I just said "Well, that's your opinion." I've never really done much about it, but I keep him there, and that's as far as I think I want to go. I don't need any more controversy. Everybody now says they want edgy strips. You want edgy? Look at what I've been through with the blacks and the Orientals and the feminists... everything!

I've been a controversy ever since I've started. I got a letter the other day in email from somebody who said, "What are you doing? You've got retarded people in there, you've got Zero, you've got blacks, you've got... it went all the way down the line. Fat people, bald people! Violence! When are you going to clean up your strip or get out of here?" It was really a mean email.

That's very strange. You'd think people would want as much representation of America as possible.

That's the reason I did it! That's why I brought the black in there, because I thought, there are blacks in the Army, there ought to be some there.

And I hadn't even considered the feminists getting offended; but then this afternoon a friend (who knew I was going to be speaking with you) asked me, "Hey, didn't Miss Buxley used to have a lot more cleavage?"

That's true! I used to draw two breasts on her, and now I just draw an outline from one side.

Was that in response to negative publicity?

Yes.

I just wasn't paying attention, I guess.

You knew something was missing, though. (Laughs)

Well, he obviously did! (Laughs) Beetle joined the military back in 1951 at the onset of the Korean War. Since that time, we've gone through Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo... and through all these conflicts, Camp Swampy has never seen combat duty

Well, I intentionally didn't ever want to get into combat because I think--first of all--it's not funny. Secondly, it gets controversial. The people who were against the Vietnam War--and there were a lot of them you know--thought that I was attacking the Army. The guys that were in the Army thought I was representing their experiences. Fortunately, I was on both sides and I survived, because all the old army strips like Sad Sack and Willy & Joe and all that... they faded right after the war. Nobody wanted them anymore. So, I very carefully orchestrated how this could be palatable to both sides and survive.

That was going to be my next question -- whether Beetle suffered any negative publicity during the Vietnam era due to anti-war sentiments of the time.

Nope, never had. I never got him into the war, first of all. It was always boot camp, which everybody experienced. I never took sides. After all these years, I'm still eating. (Laughs)

You're obviously doing something right. My personal favorite Beetle strip appeared back around 1992-1993. General Halftrack is asked what he thinks of the new income tax becoming retroactive...

Oh boy...!

...and his response was, "I think they ought to make the draft retroactive, and send Clinton to Vietnam!"

I got in trouble with that one!

Did you get any pressure from the current administration, or have you ever had problems with any administration due to a Beetle gag?

No, I never got in any trouble with Clinton, or anything like that. But, boy, did I get angry letters from people saying, "You're attacking Clinton!" Awful stuff!

Here in Arkansas, there are two kinds of people--those who really love him, or those who really don't. There's no middle ground down here.

That's why I decided never to take sides in politics because you've got fifty percent of the people against you no matter what you do. Gary Trudeau can do that, [Jules] Pfeiffer, people like that. They can do that if they want to. But I want to appeal to the broadest number of readers that I can, and if I can take a softer approach, I'll do it.

I recall a strip where General Halftrack's written orders were to "present guns for inspection." But a typo in the orders made it "buns" and nobody wanted to correct the General. The original strip had the ranks mooning the General, but the one that actually ran in the papers was quite different. How often do the editors kick a gag back to you to be redone?

About once every three or four years. But sometimes I can combat them. I had one recently where the General was in the doctor's office, and I had him sitting naked on the gurney. My editor, Jay Kennedy called up and said, "We can't use this." I said, "Why not?" He said, "Well first of all, the latest method of inspection in doctors' offices is that nobody is naked." I said, "You're kidding! I just had a yearly checkup, and I was naked!" He said, "Really? I didn't think they did that anymore." I said, "Sure! Anyway, I'm not showing anything. He's just sitting there talking to the doctor, and this is the normal way doctors inspect people--they're naked." So finally he let me do it.

I've had a number of things over the years where they've come back at me and said, "You can't do this." Usually I go along with it.

Will we ever see those strips reprinted anywhere in some format?

Yes, in Sweden. (Laughs). Sweden loves these dirty gags that I can't use over here, and every time I have a gag conference--I have four people writing with me--they always come up with something unprintable. We give them to our editor in Sweden. Not only does he bring them out in books and comic books, but sometimes they appear on the front page of the newspaper!

There was one where the General was playing golf and the Major says "It looks like you're playing a lot more golf these days." He says, "Well, my wife and I have finally decided that she can do what she wants to do, and I can do what I want to do." In the last panel, he comes home and Lieutenant Flap is screwing her on the couch. (Laughs) And he's saying "MARTHA!" and she's smiling up at him like, "Well, I'm doing what I want to do." And that was on the front page of the Stockholm paper!

How much of Beetle draws from your own experiences in the Army? You did a four-year term.

Almost four years, not quite. Well, everything I know and I write about, my research is what I did. The other day at the Pentagon they said, "Why are you still drawing Jeeps? You should be drawing HumVees." And I said, "I don't know how to draw HumVees!"

Sarge beats up on Beetle a lot. Was that prevalent when you were in the Army, or is that just a running gag?

The sergeants never beat up on enlisted men when I was in the Army; you weren't allowed to touch an enlisted man. You could bawl him out; you could yell at him, you could punish him. But you could never hit him or touch him. So, what I'm drawing is just an exaggeration of Sarge's anger.

But people occasionally write me and say "Stop doing that, this is terrible!" I say, if you believe this is real anger, if you believe what you read in the comic strips, then you believe that mice run around with little gold buttons on their red pants and drive cars. You can't believe this stuff.

A spin-off from Beetle was the strip Hi and Lois, Lois being Beetle's sister. How did the Flagston's evolve from a guest appearance into getting their own strip? Was there a popular response to them?

Not really. I took Beetle home thinking that after the Korean War was over, I would have to take him out of the Army. I thought, well, what am I going to do with him? So I took him home, introduced Lois and her husband Hi and the kids, and thought, maybe I'll just have a conflict with his brother-in-law, or something like that. Just create another situation. And everybody started writing in saying, "Hey, we like him in the Army! Put him back, put him back!"

So I took him back, and sort of minimally created Hi and Lois. [Then] somebody asked me to write gags for another strip for another syndicate, and my editor said, "Well, if you want to write a family strip for another syndicate, why don't you write one for us?" So I said, "Well, we've already got an unemployed family here, Hi and Lois. So I just sat down, wrote a whole bunch of gags, and they said, "That's great! Let's look around for an artist." That's how that all started.

You're directly involved with creating and overseeing several strips that come out of the Laugh Factory. What other strips do you produce for King Features?

Well, Sam and Silo is still going, but not going very well. I don't have anything to do with it anymore; I gave it to Jerry Dumas. And just two weeks ago, Boner's Ark stopped. That's been going for thirty-one years. It probably hasn't stopped in the newspapers yet, but I got my last proof sheets about two weeks ago. I haven't done anything with them for a long time. I used to write and draw both of them, and we never got beyond about 130-140 papers. It just wasn't worth my time anymore. So I turned it over to Frank Johnson.

You began producing cartoons at the tender age of eleven. I can't imagine that at that time you'd had a lot of schooling in the techniques of cartooning, but you nevertheless succeeded. Do you have any advice for the budding young cartoonists of today?

Well, the way I got my experience was just drawing for school newspapers. I was drawing editorial cartoons and comic strips as far back as I can remember. You get them printed in your school newspapers, and you get the reactions from your friends and your fellow students and you learn, just by trying and experimenting. By the time I was 14, I had my own comic strip in the Kansas City paper.